Scots team finds way to take fingerprints from soft surfaces

FINGERPRINTS can now be taken from fabric for the first time thanks to the pioneering work of Scottish scientists.

Police and other crime-fighting agencies are now looking at the new breakthrough, which massively expands their potential for finding vital clues.

In the past, forensic officers have only been able to take fingerprints from solid objects.

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But the innovative technique means that full sets of prints can now be taken from clothing and cloth as well as household fabrics such as curtains and couches.

The ground-breaking research has been undertaken jointly by laboratories at the University of Abertay and the Scottish Police Services Authority (SPSA) labs, both in Dundee.

And already the science is being looked at by Scottish police forces, the Home Office and the Secret Service in the US.

Last night, Paul Deacon, fingerprint unit manager at the SPSA, said: "This is cutting-edge research which will increase the type of cases we can look at. There's now virtually no smooth surface we don't have some chance of finding a print on. This is just the tip of the iceberg."

A piece of fabric is put into a vacuum chamber and a fine layer of gold is spread over it. Zinc is then added which sticks to the gold but not where there are the ridges or remains of a fingerprint. The fabric then looks like a photographic negative where the fabric appears grey except for the fingerprint.

Research used one of two existing machines in Scotland which have been effective for decades in getting prints off smooth, solid objects.

The machine, using vacuum metal deposition (VMD), was originally used to make car lamps. This is the first time its use has been expanded to reliably get prints from fabric.

Scientists cautioned that their work could not solve all cases. Only 20 per cent of the public are classed as "good donors" for leaving fingerprints on any surface. And then there is only a 5-10 per cent chance of getting a full print from a good donor.

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But they said the science could eventually be used in an average of one major case each week.

The research found that fabrics with thread counts of more than three per millimetre, such as silk or nylon, were best for catching a full print.

Even if a full fingerprint is not left on a piece of clothing, an impression could help police piece together a timeline of events.

Professor David Bremner, forensic science research leader at the University of Abertay Dundee and another author on the recent report in Forensic Science International, said: "This research is very exciting, showing a huge amount of progress in the development of the technique. By proving that fingerprinting from fabrics is possible, this should help future criminal investigations and the apprehension of perpetrators."

The new research on fabric is not the first forensic success for Scotland.Beith-born and Glasgow University-educated Dr Henry Faulds was the first to suggest fingerprints be used to detect crime in the late-19th century.

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